Even the best production of "Swan Lake" would be a stylistic anomaly. The versions we know today are descended from the choreographic noncollaboration between Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, and each company which has mounted the ballet has added or subtracted bits and pieces until what remains would undoubtedly be unrecognizable to the 19th-century Russians who first saw the work. About the only thing that remains constant is Tchaikovsky's marvelous score.
American Ballet Theatre's production, staged by the late David Blair, is often dramatically uncogent and its designs have aged badly. But such flaws are forgiven when "Swan Lake" receives the kind of transcendent performance it did last night at Kennedy Center's Opera House when the leading roles were danced by Natalia Makarova and Anthony Dowell to what can only be described as thunderous applause.
Dowell, as Siegfried, the boy who fals in love with an enchanted maiden only to betray her unwittingly and cause her death, is charming and elegant -- the consummate prince. His mime is as clear as speech. One can see a swan turn into a woman by watching his eyes. He danced his solos with a clean and controlled brillance and his partnering of Makarova was as tender as it was expert.
As the swan queen, Odette Makarova's greatest moment came at the end of Act II when, struggling to remain human despite the evil magician's spell she was changed back into a swan. As her will disintegrated, so did her bones; her arms, for a few seconds, became wings. As the evil seductress Odile, she was glittering and hard as she dazzled the prince with her virtuosity.